Davey and I were born the same year and lived next door to each other, deep in a warren of middle-class city streets. Through our first decade of discovery we were hemmed in by the same playpen, then the same backyard fences and finally by the limits of how far we could wander or explore by bike and still make it home for dinner.
Canoe friendships: Bred in the bone
Those limits of exploration opened on an unfamiliar realm one summer at a cottage owned by Davey’s uncle. This small shingle-sided building was an endless day’s travel away for a couple of 12-year-olds, over hours of desolate unpaved roads without houses, or even gas stations; an unthinkable isolation compared to our crowded city wading pools.
The cottage came with a canoe, an unloved and leaky contraption of bleached canvas, weathered wooden ribs and flaking varnish, and it fell into the hands of two unsupervised and callow youth who knew nothing about water—except perhaps that you couldn’t breathe when you were under it.
The first time we dragged the canoe down the granite bedrock to the water we had a long discussion about which end of it should point forward. We tried sitting both ways in both of the seats in an unguided process of discovery. There was the trial and error of switching sides with the paddles to make the thing move forward. But when we did get moving, we were amazed at how a few paddle strokes were enough to float us out of sight of the buildings, through the small granite islands with their straight pine trunks reaching into the sky, past the bays and marshes, until they all blended together and everything looked the same. The sun nibbled at our bare backs and the small waves made an anxious slapping sound on the hull. Could there have been a more perfect freedom than this?
We moved along the shore, making more noise than a flock of feeding gulls, paddles thumping gunwales, pointing out the obvious to each other as if we were both deaf.
What lies over the waterfall
Deep in a long bay we came to an almost-dry waterfall with just a trickle of summer flow left, falling steeply into the lake. I climbed out of the canoe and bounced up the waterfall stones. There at the top was a river, half overgrown with alders, quiet and black, stretching back and disappearing around a curve into deep summer shade. Big dragonflies patrolled the air, trolling just above the water, and the enticing world up there vibrated with a busy insect hum.
I flew back to the canoe with a plan. All we had to do was somehow carry the canoe up over the rocks, then put it into the river above and paddle on to explore the unknown around that bend. It was the most exciting idea of my entire life.
Davey would have none of it. His restless eyes told me we had already reached too far beyond the edge of our known world and that it was time to go back. I pleaded. My mind searched for some kind of bribe that would entice him to help me struggle up those boulders, but Davey already had a limitless collection of comic books so there was nothing in the material world I could offer him. I knew that without his help my plan was doomed. A white anger blurred my vision and I threatened that this would be the end of our life-long friendship. He was unmoved.
We sat there for a long while, two crib mates stalled on the threshold of real freedom in a magical old canoe. Davey remained obdurate in his fear of venturing into the unknown while I stewed in the acid of my own frustration. Not climbing those rocks to paddle up that river made no sense to me at all.
Each one charts his own course
I didn’t know it at the time, but that was to be our last summer together. Our friendship that had only just begun to be tested was doomed that autumn when my family moved to the suburbs.
I still heard about Davey once in a while. Apparently he spent his life working as a guard in the colorless clanging hallways of a federal penitentiary, an enclosed world of his own choosing, one without sunlight and wind. He never missed a paycheck; and he never did own a canoe.
I, on the other hand, missed more paycheques than I can remember. In later years as a bush pilot and fishing guide, I wandered the world scratching countless canoes on the harsh altar of adventure, scrambling up waterfall rocks to paddle around the river’s far corner, ever disappearing into the beckoning shade.
As penance for decades of scratched canoes Brian Shields now operates a canoe outfitting and repair shop out of his home.
Feature photo: Canoeroots staff